Walking with Water: Chennai Fieldtrip 2016

IMG_2061Southern reaches of the Pallikaranai Marsh. Photograph: Beth Cullen

In early December we made our first visit to Chennai with students from DS18, Master of Architecture design studio. Our stay lasted just over two weeks during which we fully immersed ourselves in the city. The majority of the trip was focused on a week-long Water Walkshop organised in collaboration with the School of Architecture and Planning at Anna University and Care Earth, a local NGO. The Walkshop was an incredible opportunity to exchange experiences and to explore the city from an unusual perspective, by following monsoon rain through the urban landscape.

We began with a transect walk from Kilkattalai ery (reservoir) to Neelankarai beach, envisaged as a “walk with water”. This provided a way for us to orient ourselves and a chance to get to know one another. During the course of the walk we observed interactions between water and the urban environment: blockages, flows, pollution, sedimentation, filtration, stagnation, evaporation. Using a range of methods, we mapped topography, plants, animals, insects, people, buildings, surfaces, infrastructures, as well as their textures, sounds, smells and movements. Our walk was guided by Jayshree Vencatesan and staff from Care Earth who provided historical context and highlighted religious and cultural elements of the landscape that were invisible to untrained eyes. Observations revealed the more-than-human elements of the urban environment, not least the Pallikaranai Marsh which was an undeniable feature. Despite efforts to control and subdue the marshland it emerged in vacant lots, middle-class residential areas, slum resettlement communities and the rapidly developing IT corridor, serving as a constant reminder of the fluid foundations of the city and the fact that “water doesn’t play politics”.

The trip was intended to coincide with the onset of the north-east monsoon, or the retreating monsoon, which Chennai relies on for the majority of its rainfall. In contrast with the devastating floods of 2015 the monsoon was delayed this year, with some anticipating its complete failure. When we arrived residents of the city were anxiously awaiting the advent of the rains, many in a state of “mortal fear” due to their experiences the previous year. A weatherman, who has become something of a local celebrity due to the accuracy of his forecasting, predicted rain would start on 1st December, which they did! Although the rains arrived they did not fall with intensity so the transect walk, and subsequent fieldwork, was much drier than expected. In the days following the walk the students focused on identifying monsoonal matters of concern in specific sections of the transect as well as their causes and effects and opportunities for design interventions. Presentations by Sekhar Raghavan, Director of the Rain Centre, Priti Narayan from Transparent Chennai/Urban Inform and Jayshree from Care Earth provided rich information.

A number of unforeseen events affected our plans. Since the 8th of November India has been undergoing what has been described as an “earth-shattering” demonetization initiative. Although we were aware of this in advance of our visit, we were not fully prepared for the realities. Restrictions were placed on the withdrawal and exchange of money, with a daily limit of 2,000 rupees leading to chronic shortages. Many people’s daily routines were shaped by the need to access cash, with information being regularly exchanged about the length of bank queues and which ATM machines were stocked and which had run dry. We heard a range of opinions about the pros and cons of demonetisation. Some claim the initiative will help to control “black money”, deter terrorism and encourage the poor to join the formal economy; others have denounced the move for its impact on the lives of the poor, the negative effects on the country’s growth rate and consequences for India’s agricultural sector. Since our trip Chennai’s construction industry has been badly hit with mass layoffs of migrant labourers who are paid cash wages, perhaps leading to a temporary slowing of the city’s expansion southwards.

Midway through our trip Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, passed away. As a powerful and controversial politician, referred to as the “goddess” of Tamil Nadu politics, her death was a major event. An official period of state mourning was declared and we were restricted to our hotel for a day or so due to fears of public unrest. Jayalalitha, or Amma (mother) as she is known by her supporters, was a strong presence. Even before her death she was highly visible on the city streets in the form of political graffiti, billboards, Amma Canteens serving cheap meals, her image even appearing on boxes of Amma products in piles of trash! Following her death everyone we met had a Jayalalitha story. It seemed she influenced everything from the introduction of mandatory rainwater harvesting initiatives to the conservation of the Chennai wetlands.

Periodic warnings of cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal hinted at the potential dangers of the monsoon season. The first alert was for Cyclone Nada – which lived up to its name and failed to materialise! The second was Cyclone Vardah which made landfall in Chennai on the afternoon of the 12th December. DS18 students had left Chennai by this point and we had travelled to Kochi on the west coast for the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale so none of us witnessed Vardah first-hand. However, the devastating effects were apparent when we returned to Chennai the following day. Countless trees had been uprooted causing damage to vehicles and buildings, telephone and electricity cables were destroyed resulting in a lack of connectivity and power cuts, many glass and tile covered building facades were severely damaged by the 140kph winds. Post-cyclone analysis has revealed that many of the affected trees were fast-growing exotic species that were particularly vulnerable due to their shallow root systems. The laying of concrete around the base of trees dramatically reduced their ability to resist strong winds, as well as restricting the percolation of much-needed rainwater into the city’s groundwater table. Impacts of the cyclone certainly reveal critical lessons for urban design and planning.

Valuable connections were made during the trip that will greatly inform our ongoing research and we look forward to strengthening these in the near future. Many jokes were made about the need to consult astrological charts before our next trip to identify a more fortuitous time! Despite the disruptive nature of the events that occurred we experienced more of the political, economic and meteorological dynamics of the city than we might have done otherwise. The physical process of walking with water allowed us to engaged with the materiality of the city and revealed sensory, tactile, nuanced dimensions of Chennai that we have been unable to discover from a distance.

Take a look at the MONASS Instagram for more photos from the trip!

The participation of DS18 student in this field trip was partially funded by the Quintin Hogg Trust.